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09/02/2015

Public Bioethics

In today’s opening session, the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues (Bioethics Commission) turned its attention to facilitating public dialogue about bioethics. Democratic deliberation is a guiding principle of the Bioethics Commission. As outlined in its first report, New Directions: The Ethics of Synthetic Biology and Emerging Technologies, the Bioethics Commission believes that public discussion and debate promote outcomes that are inclusive, thoughtfully considered, and respectful of competing views. Learn more about the Bioethics Commission’s deliberative process in the video: “How does the Bioethics Commission work?

The Bioethics Commission heard from Dennis Thompson, Ph.D. of Harvard University; Sir Roland Jackson of ScienceWise; Marion Danis, M.D. of the National Institutes of Health Clinical Center, and Florence Evans, a participant in the “What’s Next California” deliberative polling exercise.

In Democracy and Disagreement, Thompson has argued that democratic deliberation can allow diverse groups separated by class, race, religion, and gender to explore an issue together in ways that allow their different views to stimulate a richer and more extensive discussion.

In this morning’s session, he pointed to the power of deliberative discussions to reach beyond the particular group or body involved, as people who participate become more interested in keeping the dialogue going in their everyday life.

“Deliberations can be propagated,” he said. “There is a study that found that citizens who participated in deliberative action are more likely to talk about the issues and engage with co-workers in ways they didn’t before, and this was an equal opportunity [engagement]. There was not a bias in favor of class and education.”

Jackson, whose organization, ScienceWise, is focused on fostering broader discussions of significant science and technology concerns in the UK, said it’s important to understand that consensus is not necessarily the goal of deliberative processes.

“These are not citizens’ juries or consensus conferences,” he said. “The richness of what comes back from deliberative dialogue is plural and conditional responses. It is then up to the decision maker, the policy maker, to draw on that to make their own conclusions.”

Danis described a specific approach to creating a deliberative process around health insurance policy decisions that uses a game board to facilitate discussions about the complicated array of trade-offs involved. She noted that the experience has demonstrated that “a structured public discussion regarding complex and contested priorities is possible, and the process can improve public understanding and foster meaningful dialogue.”

One challenge she has encountered involves moving the process to the next step—in which the information yielded from deliberative discussions influences policy decisions.

Evans shared her experience as a participant in “What’s Next California,” an innovative effort to draw more ordinary citizens into in-depth consideration and debate of pressing and controversial political issues facing Californians. Evans was impressed with how the deliberative approach prompted a more civil and respectful dialogue on such partisan topics.

“It was an amazing experience,” she said. “We were a bunch of strangers from a lot of different backgrounds…. But everyone was very respectful of each other… There were times when there were emotional responses that were highly charged but they did not dominate.”

After a short break, we will hear from two speakers who will explore fluency in science and ethics.

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